Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Jetset: Stretching Out

Surviving “cattle class”

There’s been a lot of buzz lately surrounding the Chinese government’s announcement that it will build its own large commercial jets by 2020. However, not everyone is as enthusiastic about Chinese-made jumbo jets – some skeptics seem to visualize a fleet of flying Xialis in the sky. Indeed, one major design flaw of those once-ubiquitous red taxicabs was, of course, the lack of comfortable seats, a problem that would be magnified on an airplane.

Flying coach can be fatal these days – just google “economy class syndrome.” Even barring the occasional mid-flight fatality, most adult passengers would find sitting in a “cattle-class” seat a pain in the butt – literally. The industry standard for economy class seat pitch – the distance from any point on one seat to the exact same point on the seat in front or behind it – is 31-32 inches, or about 79-81 centimeters. In comparison, seat pitch for a standard international business class seat is around 60 inches, or 152 centimeters. That’s the kind of space that allows you to comfortably stretch your legs.

However, if you’re not willing to cough up some serious dollars for higher class seats, you have to face not only narrow seat pitch, but also narrow seat width. And cash-strapped airlines are constantly thinking of ways to squeeze in more passengers into their main cabins. The latest idea floating around is adding rear-facing seats – talk about air travel taking another step backwards! Hopefully this proposal will soon go down the drain, just like the concept of standing-room-only sections.

The only saving grace in economy class belongs to the emergency exit row seats. Although they tend to have unmovable armrests and seatbacks, these drawbacks are more than offset by the ample legroom in front of you – which is sometimes more generous than that offered in business or first class.

And it’s still relatively easy to snatch such a coveted seat in China. All you need is to ask at check-in – and I’ve had a pretty high rate of success so far. Just beware that if you fly Chinese airlines, some airport agents wouldn’t place you on an exit row if you look non-Chinese, no matter how fluent your Mandarin is.

An excellent guide to all you need to know about airline seating is seatguru.com. The website offers interactive seat maps with user-friendly color indication (choose green seats and avoid red ones). Check it out before your next check-in – and bring a neck brace. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 150 of the June 2007 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

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